The figures reported by airlines and published this past Week of the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, also confirm the experience of many passengers: 2022 was a tough year for air transport. Federal transportation officials say 88,161 flights were canceled through May — the second most in the first five months of a year since 1988, only surpassed in 2020 during the pandemic outbreak.
The surge in flight delays and cancellations – driven by rising demand in an industry that has laid off tens of thousands of workers during the pandemic – sparked unusual rounds of public blame starting this spring. It came as the country’s airports recorded their busiest days of the pandemic-era, prompting unequipped airlines to increase wage incentives for workers and cut schedules.
Industry criticism of air traffic controllers prompted rebuttals from the Federal Aviation Administration and Buttigieg, reminding passengers of theirs right to a refund when airlines cancel flights or expose passengers to lengthy delays.
While air traffic control officials acknowledge their own challenges in the pandemic era, data suggests these issues have not played a significant role in airlines’ struggles this year.
According to the Department of Transport, airlines were directly affected responsible for about 41 percent of the delays through May, a number on par with last year but higher than before the pandemic. Delayed planes – another problem largely attributed to airlines – accounted for another 37 percent of the delays.
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Problems with the country’s airspace, such as congestion, bad weather or personnel at air traffic control facilities, accounted for 17 percent of the delays — the lowest level since officials began collecting the data in 2004. Extreme weather is a separate category, accounting for about 5 percent of delays.
As for cancellations, 38 percent of the cases were attributed to airline issues, the highest rate since 2012. But most cancellations are due to circumstances beyond the airlines’ control. Weather was mentioned in 55 percent of the cases. National airspace problems, such as air traffic control, accounted for 7 percent of the cancellations.
Buttigieg said there are signs air travel is becoming more reliable, even as cancellation rates remain hovered above acceptable levels.
“What I have stressed to the airlines is that if they are doing the right thing, we want to support them. We’re also here to enforce the rules when they’re not,” he said recently. “Anytime something is under the FAA’s control, they will work on it, but I want to be very, very clear here: That doesn’t explain the majority of the delays.”
Experts said the row between airlines and air traffic control likely reflects a desire by industry leaders to spread the blame after months of trouble. Industry leaders signaled their willingness to settle the dispute last week, adopting a more conciliatory tone.
United Airlines chief executive Scott Kirby said Thursday he personally apologized to Buttigieg after an internal company memo appeared to have blamed air traffic controllers for many of the airline’s delayed flights.
“I think the whole system is strained,” Kirby said. “There is a shortage of staff everywhere, and that is part of it. It’s not unique to the FAA. It’s all in the whole economy, and certainly a lot of the things that touch aviation is tight.”
Sharon Pinkerton, Senior Vice President, Legislative and Regulatory Policy at trade group Airlines for America, added: “We’re really not interested in pointing the finger. We focus on collaboration and try to make sure we are all focused on the things that improve operational security.”
There are signs that the labor issues that have plagued the industry are improving. Southwest Airlines has more employees than before the pandemic. Delta Air Lines officials said this month the company has hired 18,000 people since 2021 and its workforce is 95 percent of pre-pandemic levels.
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Airlines and the FAA routinely communicate to manage the nation’s airspace. Air traffic controllers and airline managers meet virtually every afternoon to plan the next day’s flights, with others meeting at least every two hours throughout the day to share updates.
Former FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said previous incidents of tension between the agency and the airlines had been resolved behind the scenes. In public, both have usually tried to show unity, he said.
“There’s always a tension between what the system can comfortably handle and what airlines might want to provide,” said Huerta, who ran the FAA during the Obama administration.
The fact that tensions are being aired publicly “reflects a sense of frustration on the part of everyone,” he said.
The disputes began in April when airline leaders sought a meeting with FAA officials to address air traffic control issues in Florida. Demand for travel to the state is booming, and several airports are seeing more flights than before the pandemic. Space launches have also been identified as a cause of congestion.
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A dozen airlines, private aircraft operators and FAA officials attended the two-day meeting in early May. The FAA promised to hire staff at its busy air traffic control facility in Jacksonville, which the agency said was understaffed.
In a letter to Buttigieg in late June, Airlines for America chief executive Nicholas E. Calio said one of its members had reported air traffic control problems played a role in a third of the airline’s recent cancellations. While weather was also a factor, Calio wrote that air traffic control “staffing issues resulted in traffic restrictions in ‘blue sky’ conditions.”
In a memo to employees following the July 4 holiday weekend, United executive Jon Roitman estimated that more than half of the delay minutes and three-quarters of the airline’s cancellations were due to “FAA traffic management initiatives,” which are particularly acute in Newark and Newark were Florida. And while he acknowledged that many of those delays were due to weather, “air traffic and staffing levels are also contributing.”
“The reality is there are simply more flights scheduled across the industry than the ATC staffing system can handle (especially in NY and FL)” said the note. “Until that is resolved, we anticipate that the US aviation system will remain challenged this summer and beyond.”
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The memo drew a sharp reaction from FAA officials.
“It is unfortunate to see United Airlines confusing weather-related air traffic control actions with ATC staffing issues, which could deceptively suggest that a majority of these situations are the result of FAA personnel,” the agency said in a statement, adding that they There were overlapping factors affecting the country’s air transportation system, “the majority of delays and cancellations are not attributable to FAA personnel.”
The FAA said there were no air traffic control staffing issues on July 3 and 4, but airlines still canceled more than 1,110 flights, a quarter of which were operated by United.
Jeff Guzzetti, a former officer in the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General’s Office, researched flight delays and made recommendations in a 2013 report for reducing their impact on customers. He said the causes of delays are complex, adding that it “can be difficult to determine what each of these factors is”.
Still, he blamed the bulk of recent flight cancellations and delays as the nation had begun to emerge from the pandemic — a time when demand for travel has skyrocketed.
Michael J. McCormick, an assistant professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and a former FAA official, said the rise in delays and cancellations reflects travel demand that is outstripping the industry.
“The airlines don’t want to be the only organization that takes the blame for what’s going on in the system and says, ‘The FAA, you share the blame,'” he said. Air traffic control issues are “definitely one of them, but I wouldn’t call them the big ones”.
While airlines laid off employees in 2020 when people stopped flying, the pandemic’s impact on the FAA’s workforce was less severe. FAA documents show she lost about 500 air traffic controllers between September 2019 and September 2021. That has left some large facilities staffed at the low end of the agency’s estimated needs, according to a recent FAA staffing study. The union, which represents maintenance technicians, also says staff numbers have fallen in recent years.
The FAA hired 509 air traffic controllers last year but plans to add 1,020 more this fiscal year to help rebuild its staff, a process that takes years of training.
“There are certain regions, particularly Florida, where the impact of Covid on our training pipeline has really impacted air traffic control,” Buttigieg said.
Airline executives have also pointed out the airspace around Newark Liberty International Airport as particularly concerned. United has cut flights there to get a better handle on its operations — a process Kirby said federal officials have been a trusted partner in.